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The Breakaway: Chicago Blackhawks Owner Rocky Wirtz

By the time Bill Wirtz died last fall, his once-proud Chicago Blackhawks had turned into perennial losers playing before dwindling crowds. His son Rocky took over and quickly opened a new era for the team—by repudiating almost everything his old man held dear

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Photo: Andreas Larsson

He knew it was coming, could feel it like the first cold prickle of dread-sweat. A night that was supposed to be about reverence and remembrance was about to become another instance of embarrassment—for him, his father, his family. He also knew that, despite his newfound status as the most powerful man in the building, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Tonight was out of his hands. The only thing to do was get through it, endure it.

It was October 6, 2007, a Saturday night and the start of a new season for the Chicago Blackhawks. Eleven days earlier, his father, William Wirtz, had died. It was no secret that Bill Wirtz, one of the most influential professional sports team owners in Chicago history, was also one of the most reviled. From bars to blogs, radio talk shows to letters to the editor, the mere mention of “Dollar Bill"—as he was derisively called for his penny-pinching ways—prompted expressions of outrage and disgust. His team, the Blackhawks, once the most popular franchise in Chicago, had become a laughingstock, named “the worst franchise in sports” in 2004 by ESPN, with the second-lowest attendance in the entire National Hockey League. On the few occasions when he would make a public appearance—when he presented the former star and current head coach Denis Savard with his retired jersey, for example—he was booed mercilessly. His refusal to televise Hawks home games in the face of withering criticism had become maddening in its obstinacy. Still, at the insistence of his second-oldest son, Peter, Bill Wirtz was to be publicly honored on this night—with a pregame speech by the team’s general manager, Dale Tallon, followed by a moment of silence. The sons and daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren of the late owner had gathered in the owner’s box, high above the ice in the $175-million, 960,000-square-foot United Center, the arena that was Bill Wirtz’s crowning achievement. A spotlight snapped on. The white-haired Tallon, dressed in a shiny gray suit, began his remarks.

Rocky Wirtz, the oldest son, the man who was now in charge, braced himself. He had tried to warn his family—Peter, in particular—about what would happen, what they had let themselves in for. But nothing could have prepared the family for what followed. Grumbles grew into jeers, jeers into hisses and catcalls. Then, at the first mention of Bill Wirtz’s name, a rolling thunder of boos—loud, sustained, and angry—swept the stands like a moving curtain of dark rain.

Rocky took it. He had no choice.

But as he watched the stricken faces of his family—trying not to show the deep pain he was feeling at the display of disrespect and contempt—he was more convinced than ever of the rightness of what he was about to do. He was going to save the franchise his family had built and redeem the family name that had become so despised. And he was going to do it the only way he believed would work: by reversing the key business principles his father had held most sacred, by doing the very things his father, famously, vehemently and tenaciously, had declared should not be done.

* * *

This is not a sports story. It’s a tale of fathers and sons, of loyalty and defiance, of private family drama played out against an intensely public backdrop. Whatever one may think of Bill Wirtz and how he ran the Chicago Blackhawks, his decisions grew out of dogged loyalty to his own father, Arthur, whose nickname, “the Baron of the Bottom Line,” would prefigure the son’s own derisive sobriquet.

When Arthur Wirtz died in 1983, fans hoped that the “new” Wirtz in charge would usher in a modern era—specifically, that he would allow Blackhawks fans the privilege enjoyed by fans of every other major sport, in every other major city: to watch their beloved team’s home games on television. “Everyone was saying, ‘Wait till this young energetic son, Bill, takes over this team,’ ” recalls Bob Verdi, the Chicago Tribune sports columnist who has followed the Wirtz family for more than three decades. ” ‘He’ll put the team on the fast track—put games on TV and overturn many of his father’s ways.’ ”

He didn’t. He changed nothing. If anything, he seemed determined to outdo Arthur in stubbornness, stinginess, and irascibility—not easy, considering Arthur’s reputation as harsh and uncompromising. In the process, Bill alienated a string of legendary players over contract disputes, fired one of the team’s most popular broadcasters (Pat Foley), and (as the story, perhaps apocryphal, goes) dismissed one coach, Billy Reay, by sliding a pink slip under his hotel door on Christmas Eve.

Bill’s loyalty to Arthur was both unyielding and defiant—some would say mulish. When asked, as he often was, whether it hurt to be the most hated man in town, his answer would have made the old man proud. “Club presidents aren’t in the business of being loved by fans,” he said. “I learned that from my father.” So complete was Bill’s devotion to Arthur that he refused to defy him even in death. “As one friend of the family explained it to me,” Verdi says, “Bill probably felt if he did anything his father wouldn’t have done—like put home games on TV—the old man would have come out of his grave and wailed on him.”

When Bill died, there was little reason to believe that things would change. Under the family succession plan, Rocky became president of all Wirtz Corporation holdings, including the Blackhawks even though he had shown little interest previously in being actively involved with the team. It was Peter Wirtz, Rocky’s younger brother by seven years, who had seemed the logical choice to become team president. After all, Peter had spent his career with the Blackhawks, including several years as vice president, and was far better acquainted with that piece of the family empire than Rocky was. And all indications were that Peter planned to uphold his father’s longstanding policies. He would also run Bismarck Enterprises, a food service business he had created apart from Wirtz Corporation. Rocky would focus on the family’s lucrative liquor distributorship—the $1.3-billion Judge & Dolph.

Rocky made it clear from the start, however, who was in charge. For starters, he took the title of chairman of the Blackhawks. Rocky also told Peter that he planned to “keep the president position open until we could evaluate things,” he says, meaning Peter would not be running the team.

There was more. “I took [Peter] aside at Dad’s wake and told him that certain things were going to have to change,” Rocky says—namely the policy against televising home games. Attendance was down. Season ticket sales were abysmal. The team had not made the playoffs in years. There was no way things could continue the way they were going. “He told me he was fine with that,” Rocky says. Assuming everything was settled, Rocky went to Washington, D.C., to accept a posthumous award for his father from a trade association of liquor wholesalers.

A few days later, however, on the way home from the airport, Rocky received a call from the family’s corporate attorney. “[He] said, ‘There’s a letter from Peter on your desk, but Peter wants [me] to explain to you what it says before you read it,’ ” Rocky recalls. “[Peter and I] talked, and he just said he wanted to do something else. He said he wanted to go and work on Bismarck. He told me he wanted to write a release to the fans, and asked if I could publish that, and that he’d help me in any way in the transition.”

Rocky says he was stunned. “It hit me like a sledgehammer,” he says. “I would certainly honor his wishes, but I was bowled over.”

To this day, Rocky says he isn’t sure what happened. “I sent an attorney to talk to him, to say, ‘Why don’t you sleep on it for six months?’ ” Rocky recalls. “He said no.” Rocky says the two brothers were never close and have barely spoken since Peter’s decision to step aside, even though Peter’s offices are just one floor above his on North Lake Shore Drive and both men have offices in the United Center. Gail Wirtz Costello, their sister, says she believes Peter simply wasn’t up to making the changes Rocky was suggesting, certainly not so soon after their father’s death. “He took Dad’s death extremely hard,” she says. “Dad was his best friend. I think he was so close to him that he probably didn’t feel he could do what was needed. Rocky was ready.” Asked if Peter felt spurned by the decision not to name him president, Rocky shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says.

Whatever Peter’s reasons, his abrupt decision left Rocky in charge of a team about whose inner workings he knew little. He did know there were problems. At best the team had become irrelevant; at worst, a joke. Rocky was aware, as Bill had admitted to the Toronto Star in 2007, that the team had lost some $191 million over ten years—$31 million in 2006-07 alone. But nothing prepared Rocky for the truth. Just days after Bill’s death, he says, “the financial vice president came to me and said, ‘The Hawks can’t make a payroll. We’re already $6 million in the hole.’ We were not just losing money; we were hemorrhaging money.” Rocky knew he could borrow the money from the other Wirtz businesses. Nonetheless, he says, “I was scared.”

He was also incredulous. As unpopular as many of his father’s decisions had been, he had earned a reputation as an excellent businessman. Indeed, the rest of the family’s holdings were solidly prosperous. But the more Rocky learned about the Blackhawks, the more dysfunctional this corner of his family’s empire seemed. There seemed to be no marketing plan beyond the HawkQuarters store on Michigan Avenue. Season ticket sales desperately needed to be increased, but the sales force struggled to sell a product no one wanted. A team that had once outdrawn both the Cubs and the White Sox now attracted barely 12,000 fans a game to a 20,500-seat arena.

“I couldn’t understand it,” Rocky says.   “If I could ask [my father] one question, I’d ask him, Why? He was a superb businessman, and other stuff wasn’t this way.”

What he did know, he says, is that he needed to act quickly. “It couldn’t wait. We had to be decisive. We had to be quick. And we had to do things that were dramatic. I hadn’t had a chance to mourn Dad’s death yet, but I wasn’t going to let that hold me back in business. People who were in the organization, who aren’t now, might take this the wrong way, but we were on the brink of not bringing this company back. . . . It was showtime.”

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